Time to add morality to the profit motive when building

Grasping a sense past virtue can enable fresh insight into failings of the present

Not so long ago I attended a talk about the Victorian art and architecture critic John Ruskin. I'm vaguely familiar with Ruskin as a champion of pre-Raphaeilite painters, a pioneering thinker on the possibilities of a welfare state, and a man with some rather peculiar domestic arrangements (the painter John Millais ran off with Ruskin's wife after Ruskin supposedly declined to consummate their relationship). But I wasn't familiar with Ruskin's exact thoughts on architecture.

The part of the talk that most grabbed my interest was that apparently Ruskin believed that architecture and morality were inextricably connected – in other words a building’s architecture actually reveals a kind of moral vision. To our modern ears, when Victorians start going on about “morality”, we’re likely to roll our eyes and hold our noses at the suspect hypocrisy. Yet I think that Ruskin grasped something insightful about buildings, which has now largely been forgotten.

When we look at buildings today we might think of them as being beautiful or ugly, or a “great little earner” or a money pit. We can assess them in terms of aesthetics or market economics. Yet few people today will look at a building and pronounce that it is “immoral”.

‘Living in hideous slums’

One of the few exceptions to this, I’ve noticed, is when someone occasionally posts on social media a picture of a beautiful old building. After a few admiring comments about the quality of the stonework, or the classical features, you will almost inevitably get someone who will remark that “yes, but I bet there were people living in hideous slums nearby” and remind you of all the abysmal working conditions, inequality, exploitation and child slavery of past centuries. There are indeed people who refuse to show any admiration for grand old buildings precisely because they don’t conform to present day norms.

Does knowing that a house was built by a person who profited from the slave trade, or by someone who held obnoxious political opinions, change your view of the house itself? These are tricky problems that affect our view of buildings just as much as our appreciation for a singer and their songs can be suddenly influenced by revelations about their private life.

And yet, if we go around applying the moral standards of the 21st century to the buildings of previous ages, then it's likely that most of the great sites of the world – from the city of St Petersburg (built at terrible cost by an army of serfs) to the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal in India – would upset our modern moral compass.

I’m sure that Ruskin too, as a pioneering visionary of the welfare state, was concerned about the treatment of construction workers. Yet if I’ve understood him correctly – I’m no expert on the subject – this wasn’t exactly the type of “morality” to which he was referring.

Rather, he was suggesting that in the very way they look, buildings can make a contribution to society and our concept of humanity. In the Victorian age of grim factories where people were treated as expendable units of production, Ruskin was arguing that it was “immoral” that buildings reinforced the idea that we should seek from people nothing more than the profits of capitalism.

Ruskin wanted beautiful buildings, on a human scale, that looking upon make the spirit soar. He wanted care given to the artistry and craftsmanship of the buildings so that they nurtured an appreciation of art and craftsmanship within us all. A “moral” building was one that made a positive contribution to society and human beings as a whole, not one simply designed to extract as much profit as possible from the people living in them.

If you start thinking about the connection between buildings and “morality”, you can of course see properties in many different lights depending on the foundations of the type of morality you have in mind. Some might think of the “iceberg” houses – often funded by the dubious dealings of overseas investors – found in the chic suburbs of world capitals with cavernous underground floors containing swimming pools and gyms carved under heritage buildings as pretty “immoral”.

Designing purely for profit

Others might think of the kind of sub-Corbusian public housing schemes designed to house the greatest number of people for the best value for public money. The results are often disastrous, particularly in the long term when tastes and requirements change. Yet other people might argue that houses that are not sufficiently “green” and environmentally friendly are “immoral”.

Yet applying Ruskin’s own specific sense of aesthetic “morality”, I can’t help thinking that a great number of the depressingly uniform buildings being thrown up in the modern world – even if they conform to the latest health and safety guidelines, minimum wages and minimum building standards – are pretty “immoral”, designed purely for investment profit, with little consideration of any other social vision.

We perhaps spend a little too much time in the modern world looking back on the past, convinced that we are effortlessly superior in our moral vision. But sometimes by grasping a sense of the “morality” of the past we can gain a new insight into the failings of the present. I think one important lesson we could learn about our attitudes to property investment in the present is to stop thinking exclusively about profit – vital consideration though that is – but also giving consideration to buildings that can inspire, and interconnect with a sense of community, on a daily basis.